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Thatcherism Hasn’t Failed: It Has Infected All Our Politics


Another head of government died recently who, like Thatcher, was called divisive. But unlike Thatcher, president Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, the "president of the poor", fought for a caring economy and against the rule of the market. The "crime" he was accused of was to reclaim the oil revenue from local and foreign thieves, and use it to tackle poverty. Chávez is gone, but the voters are likely to re-elect Chavismo on 14 April. Thatcher is gone, but Thatcherism has infected and discredited all mainstream parties, depriving us of a chance to turn it down. 

The left misleads us and maybe itself when it says that Thatcher's policies, extended by New Labour and then by the coalition, have failed. The drastic results of these policies were intentional. Their target was "the enemy within" – working-class power and the so-called culture of entitlement. 

The welfare state set out to ensure that no one, in the UK at least, would starve or freeze to death, or suffer or die for lack of medical or other care. No elderly person would be deprived of the dignity of spectacles, dentures or a hearing aid because they couldn't afford them. No homeless or disabled people need beg on the streets. No children excluded from school activities because mothers couldn't pay. No single mother raising children was to be called "workless", skipping meals to feed them and forced to ditch them to submit to "workfare" or a starvation wage. 

The welfare state, with its unemployment and housing benefits and free healthcare, actually protected wages: employers could not force workers to accept low pay or unpaid overtime because of the job's healthcare provision, as they do in the US. Thatcher understood the connection between the social wage and workers' wages better than most unions. 

She was the first prime minister to be more accountable to the international market than to the British economy. To enrich the global 1% she so brilliantly represented, our "entitlement" had to go and she was just the one to do it. 

She said "there is no such thing as society", and set out to prove it by promoting individual greed and competition for everything. Privatisation was the single most massive attack on democracy we have seen. It destroyed the public's power to determine via parliament the services and prices of gas, electricity, telephone. The relative wealth of the UK 1% had been falling steadily for 50 years when Thatcher took power in 1979; since then it has climbed steeply and is almost back to 1918 levels. How dare her apologists and beneficiaries of her legacy refer to trade unions like the NUM as "corrupt" in the face of their bonuses and tax cuts! 

The leading feminist Natasha Walter called Thatcher "the great unsung heroine of British feminism". While Labour was now "intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich", ambitious feminism wanted to be let in to the boardroom and every corridor of power – that and little else is what they mean by changing the world. Thatcher came to personify those ready to push anyone aside to gain power in a man's world and strengthen that world with their ambition. 

It is not true that Thatcher didn't care about the media. She worked to enhance its corporate power. Police charges against picketing union printers in Wapping enabled the Murdoch empire to flourish, ensuring their power and hers. Original, independent voices such as BBC director general Alasdair Milne were brutally silenced. 

She was propped up by police who were encouraged to brutality against not only strikers but communities of colour, already hardest hit by unemployment: police powers were enhanced and their racism given free rein, especially with stop and search; CS gas was used on the mainland for the first time. In 1982, the English Collective of Prostitutes occupied a church for 12 days in protest against "police illegality and racism in King's Cross" – the area to which many sex workers known as "Thatcher's girls" had travelled from high unemployment areas in the Midlands and the north. And in 1983, for the first time, children born in Britain to non-British parents were denied automatic citizenship, fostering further racism and discrimination in immigration policy. 

In the north of Ireland she had the army and the Diplock courts which reached their peak in the mid 1980s. A friend of South African apartheid and mass murderers – from Kissinger and Pinochet to the Khmer Rouge after they had killed two million Cambodians – she was a zealous saleswoman for the arms industry. Without the Falklands/Malvinas war, which exploited nationalism (as Argentinian dictator Galtieri did) and which Labour would not oppose, she would never have been re-elected in 1983. Everyone knows that. 

The passing of Chávez is mourned by the many millions who loved him in Latin America and everywhere. Thatcher's passing is marked by street parties in Brixton, Belfast, Bristol, Derry, Glasgow and Liverpool, and seething bitterness among the mining families and communities she was allowed (including by scab union and Labour leaders) to destroy. 

If they have no bread, let them eat from food banks – that's Thatcherism, the legacy we are still to bury before it buries us.

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